This section moves on to midrashim on the Joseph story. The first of these is connected to Esther, and it is for that reason that the collection is placed here.
When Joseph gives Benjamin more gifts than he gives to the other brothers, he seems to be falling into the same trap as did his father. Jacob gave a greater gift than that which he gave to the brothers, the “tunic of ‘many colors'” (whatever the word “pasim” means). By doing so he set in motion the process that would eventually lead to the Israelite descent into slavery in Egypt. Joseph should know this—yet he falls into the pattern of the same destructive behavior as his father (don’t we all).
Benjamin b. Japhet (is it a coincidence that Benjamin explains Benjamin?) explains that Joseph was giving Benjamin a hint that eventually he would have a descendant who would wear five royal garments—Mordecai.
Joseph cries on Benjamin’s “necks” for the two Temples that were to be built in Jerusalem, which according to some was in the tribe of Benjamin. And Benjamin cried on Joseph’s neck for the destruction of the tabernacle in Shiloh, the center of worship before the building of the First Temple in Jerusalem.
This section is about Joseph’s revelation of his identity to his brothers. R. Elazar reads into the verse some emphasis that Joseph holds no malice against them for having sold him into slavery.
How nice of Benjamin to send his father wine from Egypt. I’ll be happy if my boy sends me wine when I’m old. Right now it’s still mostly whine.
The first verse quoted here is from Genesis 50, after Jacob has died. The brothers come in front of Joseph, bowing down out of fear. R. Elazar applies a folk saying to this—”A fox in its hour—bow down to it.” The implication of the saying is that one should bow down even to a lowly fox, when it is “having its hour.” The problem is that Joseph is no fox, inferior to his brothers. The saying should be invoked only when superiors are bowing to an inferior, which is not the case here.
Therefore, the saying is reapplied to a case where Jacob bows down to Joseph. Since Jacob is the father, Joseph should bow down to him. But Joseph was “having his hour” and therefore it is appropriate for Jacob to bow down to him.
Joseph reassured his brothers that he did not intend on taking revenge against them.
We now return to our regularly scheduled midrashing on the book of Esther.
Judah gives particular interpretations to all of the general words in Esther 8:16. Most of these are comparisons between the word here and the word as used in another context.
There are a few points that require explanation. “I rejoice at Your word” is understood as a reference to circumcision for God gives the commandment of circumcision using the word “ויאמר” and not “וידבר.” See Genesis 17:9.
The midrash on honor is not based on the use of the word in Deuteronomy 28:10. Rather, it is based on R. Elazar’s interpretation of that verse: when the people of the world see Israel wearing tefillin, they will be afraid of them, i.e. they will honor them. The tefillin seem to be like a crown of glory, demonstrating that Israel fights in the name of the Almighty Lord.
There are two special rules with regards to the section about the hanging of Haman’s ten sons. First, since they all died at the exact same moment, they all must be said in one breath. This is not easy—some long hard to pronounce names. Second, the vav of the word “Vaizata” must be lengthened like a boat-pole, for all ten sons were hung on one pole.
If you have ever looked at a Sefer Torah you will notice that songs are written in a special form—a half-brick of writing over a brick of writing on the next line, with a brick over a half-brick of writing. In the first line there would be a half brick followed by a full brick, followed by another half brick, a space separating each brick/half-brick. In the second line there would be a brick followed by another brick, again with a space in between. Every half brick is on top of a brick. But there are two exceptions—the list of Haman’s sons and the list of kings in Joshua 12:9-24. These are written half brick over half brick. They cannot “move up” because there is always something directly in the line above them. This is a symbolic way of preventing them from ever rising again.
In this verse, which is not fully quoted here, at first it seems that Ahashverosh is angry that the Jews are massacring so many people. But then he proceeds to tell Esther that she can have whatever he wants. It’s a strange turnaround in one verse. To explain it the midrash says that an angel came and slapped him on his mouth.
This verse looks as if it should be said by Esther, not Ahashverosh. It seems to be Esther instructing Ahashverosh to turn Haman’s plot onto Haman’s own head.
Yohanan interprets the verse to mean that the words in the book are Esther’s. Esther gave him the scroll and Ahashverosh was to pronounce the words in it. Thus Ahashverosh speaks, but the content is hers.
Since the book of Esther is called “truth” it must be written like the Torah, with ruled lines.
Esther 9:31 is a letter from Ahashverosh directing his kingdom to observe all that Esther has commanded, including the annulling of the decree, and the observance of fasts. But then in vs. 32 it says only that the “ordinance of Esther” saved the Jews. This implies that their fasts did not.
Yohanan resolves this by rereading the verse, attaching the end of vs. 31 to vs. 32. The fasts and crying out to God and Esther’s words to Ahashverosh are what saved the day. Neither would have been sufficient alone.
This section again notes the conflict between political and religious authority. The verse from Esther seems to hint that Mordecai was not accepted by all of his brothers. The midrash explains that after he became second to the king, some of his fellow rabbis (Mordecai is understood by the midrash to be a “rabbi”) separated from him. The time spent working in politics would have taken them away from what they really wanted to be doing—studying Torah.
The same message is hinted at in R. Joseph’s midrash. R. Joseph says that studying Torah is more important than even saving lives, as Mordecai did for the Jews in Shushan and the rest of the kingdom. At first, when he was just studying Torah, Mordecai was the fifth in the list of those with Zerubabel. But when he stopped studying Torah to save lives, he was demoted to sixth.
I should note that I read this counterintuitive midrash as being purposefully provocative, fighting against what most people surely think. The obvious position is that saving lives takes precedence over study. After all, one cannot study when one is dead. There is no doubt that this is true. But the midrash is trying to say that we should not so simply assume that politicians are superior to religious leaders. At times we need to state that studying Torah takes precedence over everything else, even the saving of a life. In other words, while I wouldn’t want a real law to be shaped by this sentiment, i.e. I wouldn’t want to see someone studying instead of actually saving a life, I do believe that as a value statement, this resonates with me.
Today’s section continues with the topic of Talmud Torah—the supreme value of studying Torah.
According to the rabbis, there was a Bet Midrash in the time of the patriarchs that had been established by Shem and Ever (Shem was one of Noah’s sons, and Ever was his grandson). Jacob, according to legend, studied in the Bet Midrash of Ever (Shem was already dead). During those years he was not able to honor his parents due to his absence. Nevertheless, he was not punished. This teaches that the study of Torah is greater than honoring one’s parents.